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Is online shaming of COVID-19 rebels effective? Maybe, but not for everyone

People take in the sunset at English Bay Beach, in Vancouver, on March 21, 2020. Whether it's posting a video of a crowded Vancouver beach or a photo of men playing basketball on a closed court in Philadelphia, some Twitter users have resorted to online shaming in an effort to convince others to abide by social distancing measures.And while experts in psychology and sociology say those tactics can work in some situations, they're more divided on the actual effectiveness of it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

People take in the sunset at English Bay Beach, in Vancouver, on March 21, 2020. Whether it's posting a video of a crowded Vancouver beach or a photo of men playing basketball on a closed court in Philadelphia, some Twitter users have resorted to online shaming in an effort to convince others to abide by social distancing measures.And while experts in psychology and sociology say those tactics can work in some situations, they're more divided on the actual effectiveness of it. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Whether it's posting a video of a crowded Vancouver beach or a photo of men playing basketball on a closed court in Philadelphia, some Twitter users have resorted to online shaming in an effort to convince others to abide by social distancing measures.

And while experts in psychology and sociology say those tactics can work in some situations, they're more divided on the actual effectiveness of them.

"It's a tough one because to do it on the scale that would have impact, the audience really matters," Hilary Bergsieker, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo, said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press.

"If the perception is that this is a generational thing where millennials are unconcerned about the virus and it's boomers who are trying to shame them, you could get a group-based effect where people don't really care about an older generation's disapproval of their actions.

"Think of the classic dynamics that involve teenagers — sometimes the disapproval of others can almost be like a badge of honour."

#COVIDIDIOTS was trending on Twitter this week, with users sharing memes about social distancing and posting photos that showed members of their communities ignoring steps aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus.

Harris Ali, a sociology professor at York University in Toronto, believes that type of online shaming can work.

He sees the situation as one of "social control," which he described as influencing people to change their behaviour, and likened online shaming to earlier public health campaigns against smoking or drunk driving.

"One way of changing social behaviour is through informal sort of sanction, and stigma and embarrassment," Ali said over the phone this week. "And you see that with smoking, right? The social norm changed so the smoker is stigmatized and feels embarrassed. They can't stand in public smoking because people give them a disdainful look.

"Public shaming is the term they use nowadays, and that actually leads to some results — people choosing behaviour. It's this idea of working together and so if a guy isn't doing social distancing, he'll feel bad, like: 'Oh, I should be part of the team. I should be working with everyone else, it shouldn't just be about me.'"

Philip Walsh, an associate professor in sociology at York, said the effectiveness of online shaming depends on the intention of who's doing the calling out.

"Are they doing it in a self-righteous way? Are they doing it in a performative way? Or are they genuinely trying to make a serious point?" Walsh said, adding that he's seen instances of people asking for space in public when another person gets too close to them.

Those in-person requests are fine, Walsh said.

"I think everybody has to take some responsibility and be prepared to call people out," he added. "We can be polite about it, but we can be firm."

Being firm in person is one thing. Being unnecessarily harsh online is another.

While Ali said he doesn't personally agree with some of the shaming he's seen online, he does see the value in a collective group trying to shape others' behaviours in a public way.

The threshold between being cruel and being educational isn't that clear, though.

"The best way is to just take a more collective approach and try to educate people, but know it could backfire on you, as well," Ali said. "You can say 'you should stop smoking, it will kill you,' and the guy says 'well, screw off.'

"So it's complex thing and it's hard to give a proper suggestion on how to do it."

Bergsieker believes a better — but still public — way to make someone take COVID-19 more seriously may be to show them examples of people they admire following recommendations and staying indoors during the pandemic.

Bergsieker said there have been plenty of similar examples to that in recent history, like when celebrities publicly back political candidates, increasing their popularity among younger voters.

"We know from the research on persuasion that when you have a likable, attractive, respected communicator deliver a message, people are much more likely to believe that message and internalize it," she said.

"So it becomes about who is doing the positive modeling and who is doing the public shaming."

While people can try different ways to get others on board with social distancing and self-isolation, there likely will always be individuals who just won't take it seriously, no matter what.

Bergsieker thinks some of that has to do with the culture in Western societies like Canada and the United States.

"Going back to John Locke and a lot of early Enlightenment thinkers, people in Western societies tend to have a more freedom-based understanding of life and put a stronger emphasis on their freedom," she said. "And that makes it harder to get people to make individual sacrifices that curtail their freedoms for the good of the whole."

Walsh compared the situation to the Second World War, when rations were in place but people still hoarded goods and disregarded government mandates.

"There was this feeling we were all in this fight together but you still had people not playing by the rules," he said. "So you're not going to get everybody to comply.

"I guess the hope just has to be that the effects of those not complying won't be too significant."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2020.

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